July 11, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Deuteronomy 30:10-14) Reading II (Colossians 1:15-20)
Gospel (St. Luke 10:25-37)
In the Gospel reading today, this man who is a lawyer comes up to Jesus and asks Him the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The Lord just turns the question back on him and asks what it is that is necessary: “What does the law say?” Now this is a very important question because the law of the Old Testament, we recall, consisted of 613 specific precepts that were to be followed. Of course, eternal life was based on the concept of following the law perfectly, which, other than Our Lord and His mother, no one was ever able to do. No one was justified by the law. In fact, the law was placed upon the people because of their disobedience. It was not a matter that all 613 precepts were given at once, but rather they were given incrementally. Each time the people were disobedient to God, He slapped more laws upon them in order to reign in their disobedience, in order to keep them on a very strict and narrow path. So it is with that in mind that the question is asked, “What is necessary?” And the man answers correctly and says, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Our Lord tells him, “You are correct; do this and you will live.”
Now that was the Old Testament, that was the law that had been given even prior to the disobedience of the people, to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and soul and strength, and it is the essence of all the law. The law is given in love, and for us, even though the ritual laws have all been abrogated, the moral laws that are laid out for us in the Old Testament still remain, but all the ritual or ceremonial laws have been done away with because we have a new law, and that new law is a law of love. That is the command Jesus gave to us when He came into this world. It is simply to reiterate what already had been, but to be able to bring it to perfection because according to the old way no one was able to fully live according to the law. But we can. If we look at that first reading from what Moses tells the people toward the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, he says to the people that first it is when they turn back to the Lord. In other words, he is already telling them that they are going to rebel against God. I suspect that he could look at any one of us and say the exact same thing. If we look back in our lives, at some point most of have probably rebelled against God somewhere along the line. If we just simply recall the sins of our past, it would be pretty good for our humility. We recognize that we have turned away from God and that we have turned back.
Moses calls the people to follow all the laws that are written in the Book, but Saint Paul reminds us that the law we have is not a law which is written on stone, but rather it is a law that is written in our hearts. Moses even pointed this out to the people back then. He said, “It is not up in the sky that you have to say, ‘Who’s going to go up and get it for us,’ and it is not across the sea that you will wonder how you can go across to get it or who will find it for you,” but he says, “It is already written in your hearts and in your mouths.” But even more, the prophet Jeremiah tells us that the covenant that was to come is one that God will write His law in our hearts and in our minds. So as Moses says, “All that is left is for you to carry it out.”
We are in that new covenant, and the law of God is already written in our hearts and in our minds. The moral laws are all there because it is all natural law. It is all based on what is natural to every one of us. That is why when we hear of some of the unfortunate things that people in our society are trying to do we naturally recoil against it because it goes against our very nature. But the law that is written in our hearts and minds is a law of love. That law of love is a call to love God and to love our neighbor. We have to understand, of course, what that means because there are so many people these days who think that love is about happy feelings, or that love is about telling people that it is okay for them to do whatever they want to do, or that love is some kind of selfish thing about getting one’s own pleasure – “If you loved me, you would let me do whatever I want to do, – or so on and so on, as the things go. None of those have anything to do with love at all. Love is about self-sacrifice. Love is about giving. Love is about dying to self and pouring one’s self out for the sake of others. And so to love God and to love neighbor is to give ourselves entirely to God and to live what it is that we promise. To love our neighbor is to pour ourselves out for others.
For those who are married, I may remind you that you have made a vow that that is exactly what you are going to do for one other person, and that is what God is going to hold you responsible for. That is preparation for eternity. But it is not just to remain with one other person; you are to learn to love with that one other person, and then the love overflows and so the love goes out beyond just the marriage. The same, of course, is true with siblings. For those who are children, you are not only called to love your parents but to love your brothers and sisters. Love is doing what is best for the other person. Now, under normal circumstances, it is not best to be mean to your siblings, it is not best to hit them and kick them and call them names and do all kinds of nasty things. Those are not acts of love. So we can ask ourselves, “What would a marriage look like if a couple truly loved one another, if both of them were vying to serve the other, to outdo the other in goodness, to anticipate the other in seeking the good?” which is exactly what Saint Paul tells us we are supposed to do. Imagine what life would be like in the home if siblings were not fighting and bickering and picking on each other and tearing each other down, but instead were actually trying to be kind to one another and help one another and build one another up? The goal is to help one another become saints, and that is what we are called to do.
We can look at this and we can say with the people of the Old Testament, “This is too hard. I don’t know if I can do that.” But Saint Paul answers the question for us already. It is not too hard for us because in Christ everything has been reconciled. This is the very purpose of our creation and it is something which has been broken inside of us because of sin; yet, at the same time, in Christ everything has been reconciled, which means the split within our nature has been put back together. We have the capacity once again to live according to the way that God created us to live, not by ourselves but by God’s grace, which means that to truly love is something which is supernatural. That requires that we are going to pray in order to avail ourselves of the grace of God and to be able to receive His love, and then it means we have to be looking for opportunities to give, to serve. Now our society tells us that we are supposed to be selfish, that we are supposed to look out for ourselves because, after all, no one else is going to do such a thing. But our faith tells us just the opposite, that we are to serve, that we are not to look out for ourselves, that we are to trust that God is going to take care of us. Our task is to love, to love God and to love our neighbor.
It is just like any vessel you have at home; you cannot fill it up if it is already full with something else. If you want to be filled with the love of God, you have to pour out what is already there so God can fill you up. We keep thinking that we have to get more for ourselves. Your soul, I suspect, is just like your attic. You can only put so much junk in there and you keep trying to buy more so you can fill it up; pretty soon it is overflowing and what are you going to do with it all? You have to get rid of the stuff so you can fill it up. You have to love in order to be loved; it is not the other way around. All of us want to be loved, but we do not want to love for some odd reason. We have to give before we can receive, and we have to give in charity. It is not giving so that we can get something back – that is still selfish, it is still calculated, it is a matter of saying, “What am I going to get in return for what I’m giving?” That is not what it is about. It is just a matter of giving and then trusting that God is going to take care of the rest. He will fill you up if you are willing to pour yourself out.
Again, this is not something that is beyond our ability. When we stop to think of what Saint Paul is talking about in the fact that everything has been reconciled in Christ both in heaven and on earth, He is the beginning and He is the end, He is the first and He is the last, He is the firstborn from the dead and yet He is also the firstborn of all creation, He is God and He is man, He is of heaven and He is of earth. Everything is united in Christ, which means that we have been made one in Christ. We are reunited with God and we are reunited with one another in Christ, therefore the capacity to love is right there. If you stop to think about how in the Old Testament Moses can say, “This law is already in your hearts and in your mouths,” how much more is the law of the New Testament (and that law, remember, is a Person; it is Jesus Christ) not written on stone but is written in hearts of flesh, in our hearts of flesh. Therefore, Jesus Christ dwells within us if we are in the state of grace and we dwell in Him. We have been reconciled, we have been united in Christ, and so the love that we have to give to others is the very love of Christ Himself. This is what it means to be united. The Head and the Body are together, and so Christ dwelling within us is able to love in us and through us if we are willing to allow that to happen, if we are willing to open our hearts, to be vulnerable, to take the risk, and to give. That is what we have to do. It is not beyond our ability. It is not too hard for us because it is the Lord Who will do this in us, but that means we have to be seeking union with Him. He has already reconciled us; the question is - Do we want to be reconciled? He has done all the work, but we still have to accept.
So it means that we have to come before Him, and we have to open our hearts to be able to receive Him. Just think what happens when we receive Holy Communion. Our Lord in His love gives Himself entirely to us, He sacrifices Himself, He pours Himself out, He gives it all; and we come forward to receive Him, but most of us keep Him at an arm’s distance at least, some of us a lot farther away than that. We like the fact that He has sacrificed Himself, we like the fact that He pours Himself out, but we do not like the fact that He asks us to do the same. So we do not let Him close. We like the objective idea of what He has done, but we do not like the subjective idea of what He is trying to do. He wants to enter into our hearts. He wants to love us so that we can love in return, but if all we want is something for ourselves, we reject Him. We have to love Him with our whole heart and soul and strength knowing that He is already loving us with His whole heart and soul and strength. And then He calls us to love one another as He has loved us, to sacrifice ourselves, to pour ourselves out, to give. That is what it is all about. This is not too hard for us. It is not too far away. It is not too difficult. It is already written in our hearts and in our minds. So the same challenge Moses gave to the people 3500 years ago is the same one that Our Lord gives to each one of us today. This law – this law of love, this law who is a Person, who is the very Person of Jesus Christ – already dwells in your hearts and in your souls. It is a law of love. It is a law that is calling each one of us to perfect union with Jesus Christ. It is already there. He is written in our hearts and we are written in His, therefore the challenge is simply to carry it out.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.